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Canada Family Holidays

Cycling in St Peters Bay, Prince Edward Island.Cycling in St Peters Bay, Prince Edward Island.Canadian Tourism Commission
Refuelling on BeaverTails fried dough pastries after a day's skiing in Canada.Refuelling on BeaverTails fried dough pastries after a day's skiing in Canada.
Ice-skating on the Rideau Canal, Ontario.Ice-skating on the Rideau Canal, Ontario.Canadian Tourism Commission
Capital City Ottawa
Timezone GMT -3 to -6
Currency Canadian Dollar

Today

Overview

Stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and up to the North Pole, Canada is a vast country (the world’s second-largest) so has oodles of scope for family fun. From mountains to tundra, from forests to beaches and from glaciers to islands, its natural beauty is compelling, but there are also hip and happening cities, quaint towns, thrilling rail journeys, fascinating historical sites, themeparks to rival those in the USA and world-class museums. Couple that with all the opportunities offered by the great outdoors, from whale-watching to salmon-fishing with bears, some in the country's 41 National Parks, and you get a one of the world's best family holiday destinations.

The time and expense involved in covering the immense distances between places in Canada means it may be wise to confine your trips to one area surrounding a major city – perhaps Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. That's unless you want to make the actual journey through Canada the main focus of your holiday with an epic train trip…

Things to do with kids in Canada

Discover Ontario, Canada’s most southerly region, home to a large proportion of the country’s 30 million people, its largest city, Toronto, and its biggest tourist site, Niagara Falls. The great waterfalls straddle the border between Canada and the United States, and there is enthusiastic competition between the two to lay on the best tourist facilities – you can balloon over the falls, sail under them, or walk through behind or beside them. The famous Maid of the Mist boats operate from the USA but there are plenty of options on the Canadian side of Niagara, including helicopter rides, the Skylon Tower with its observation deck, the Skywheel and even zip-lining beside the Falls. 

Drive about 90 minutes from Niagara to Toronto, a financial and industrial powerhouse but a good family city break destination in its own right, as well as a launchpad for exploring further afield. This vibrant, appealing city has some great family attractions. The CN Tower, the world’s tallest free-standing building, has glass-fronted elevators whizzing you up to its viewing platforms plus the opportunity for those aged 13 years and up to do the hands-free but harnessed EdgeWalk around the circumference of its roof. The Royal Ontario Museum, Centreville Amusement Park, Toronto Zoo and the outstanding themepark Canada’s Wonderworld are just some of the other things to do in Toronto with kids. Some of the city's attractions are on the Toronto Islands within Lake Ontario. Alternatively, about 90 minutes north of Toronto is lesser-known Georgian Bay, a beautiful waterscape of islands and lakes.

Explore another highlight of family holidays in Ontario, about 450km north-east of Toronto: the country’s capital Ottawa, which has changed enormously since a government spending spree. In the heart of the city is Mooney’s Bay, with a sandy beach with swimming in the river, volleyball, biking paths and cross-country skiing on illuminated trails, plus a ski school, according to season. In autumn people head here to see the beautifully coloured foliage.

Note that Ottawa is part of the National Capital Region together with neighbouring Gatineau, which is in the French-speaking province of Quebec. The Gatineau Hills themselves are a popular skiing destination among inhabitants of both cities and Ontario as a whole, as well as having nothing less, in winter, than the world’s biggest skating rink in the form of the two-kilometre-long Skateway on the UNESCO World Heritage listed Rideau Canal. The city of Gatineau, meanwhile, is home to the Canadian Museum of History, which contains the Canadian Children’s Museum, with permanent displays, temporary exhibitions and special events. Read our dedicated guide to family holidays in Quebec, including skiing with kids in Tremblant with its colourful, traffic-free centre built in the style of an historic French town. 

Quebec is a vast province that covers about a sixth of Canada’s total area, largely with forest, lakes and mining towns. Spend time in Montreal, founded in 1642 as a fur-trading centre and retaining its fascinating historical centre and old ports, which you can explore on foot, by bike or by guided tour – the latter gives you a sense of the struggle the early settlers had, and tells of the people who were here before Europeans got involved. Other highlights of Montreal with kids are the Montreal Science Centre – wonderful for budding geeks – and the fantastic Montreal Biodome with its four walk-through reconstructions of American eco-systems, complete with animals, including penguins in the Antarctic. The Biodome is in Montreal's Olympic Park, which is also home to the Montreal Tower – the world’s tallest inclined tower, leaning out at a 45° angle and accessed by funicular cable-cars – a stadium and a vast sports complex. Shopaholics, meanwhile, find heaven in the Underground City, a 30km subterranean maze linking office buildings, hotels, restaurants and shopping malls under the city centre.

Wander the cobbled streets of Quebec City in its wonderful position beside the great St Lawrence River. This is the only walled city in North America and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. As you stop for a croissant and café au lait and listen to little old ladies talk French, you could be forgiven for wondering which continent you’re on. Stroll along the Terrasse Dufferin, a wide, buggy-friendly boardwalk beside the river, lined with shops and ice-cream parlours, and through the Lower Town with its elegant historic houses and sights. Just outside the old city walls is the historic battlefield of the Plains of Abraham, within the child-friendly Battlefields Park dotted with old artillery pieces and martello towers that you can discover on numerous walking trails. A short trip outside Quebec City, the Village Vacances Valcartier is Canada’s largest water-park, transformed into a winter-sports resort in the colder months.

Further afield, experience Tadoussac on the St Lawrence – a village steeped in history, featuring a reconstruction of Canada’s first French trading post that allows a glimpse of what Canada was like at the time of the earliest settlers. Most people come here for the whale-watching, but you can also sea-kayak, cruise on the awesome Saguenay Fjord, snow-mobile and more.

For something a little more rugged, head for Canada’s Atlantic Coast –the Gaspé Peninsula, where the Appalachian Mountains fizzle out. This is a lovely area of forests, cliffs and old fishing villages, with some great trips out to sea.

Venture into the Maritime Provinces – gorgeous, sleepy Nova Scotia, pristine Prince Edward Island and imposing New Brunswick. These areas are not for the fainthearted (and whatever you do, don’t come in winter), but those who appreciate spectacular natural beauty and don’t mind struggling a bit to find it will have a wonderful holiday here. Base yourselves in Halifax and take a boat to remote Newfoundland, the setting for The Shipping News, to admire floating icebergs.

Go west, far west, for the delights of British Columbia, a land of untainted wilderness, with mountains, forest, coastal fjords, giant ranches, plains and immense lakes – everything is on a large scale. Book a family holiday in British Columbia, which has more flora and fauna than the rest of Canada put together, and you can ski (especially at world-famous Whistler in the north of the province), hike or sail, or to try your hands at salmon-fishing. It’s more or less all about the coast here: the interior is hard to get to, and it’s hard to find somewhere to stay when you do make it. Discover beautiful Vancouver with kids; most of the BC population is based here and it has lots of family attractions.

Head into the north (the provinces of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut) – the final frontier. Its reputation as a land of perpetual winter, a frozen wasteland, means few people visit, but come in summer and find it transformed into a beautiful place of extraordinary sporting opportunities, fascinating cultures and wonderful landscapes, flora and fauna. Visit the Skeena Valley or the archipelago of Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands).  Drive the 2240km Alaskan Highway, connecting the USA to its state of Alaska via Canada, camp out in the Nahanni National Park or take your kids glacier-hiking on Baffin Island in Auyuittuq National Park. If this is a little too ambitious to tackle independently, go with one of the many excellent guided tours.

Eat

Big cities and larger towns in Canada provide all the child-friendly fare you can find around the globe, including pizzas and pasta galore, and there’s a lot of kid-pleasing ‘North American’ fare, from hot dogs from street stands to apple pie. Otherwise, as you’d expect in such a vast country, ‘Canadian cuisine’ varies widely, with a French influence predominant, naturally enough, in the province of Quebec, but British, Irish, Scandinavian, German, Polish and Ukrainian influences in other places, and Chinese food widely available.

Wild game is a mainstay in colder, more northerly parts, while in the Maritime Provinces salt-cured fish features heavily. Seal meat is also eaten on the Atlantic coast and in the north. If that’s beyond the pale for you, other local produce includes wild blueberries, salmon and maple syrup. And start a hectic day of sightseeing or outdoors activities with a 'lumberjack’s (or logger’s) breakfast': three or more eggs, ham, bacon and sausages, and several large pancakes.

In Montreal, don’t miss a smoked meat sandwich with coleslaw, crisps and half a pickle, or a local bagel. Another Quebec speciality (found all over the country) is poutine – chips with a topping of cheese curds and gravy. 

When to go to Canada

When to take a family holiday in Canada depends on what sort of experience you’re looking for. The ski season typically lasts Dec–April, but if you’re visiting other places during this time you’ll find a lot of attractions closed for the winter months, which can be bitterly cold, so do your research. As in Europe, July and August tend to be the warmest months, with a temperatures of around 25°C in Vancouver and Toronto.

Cost

Accommodation and food have historically been cheaper in Canada than in the UK and remain relatively good value, making it a good-value family holiday destination depending on where you stay and what you do.

By Rhonda Carrier

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